Developing Best Practices: Cross-talk Between Postdoc Offices

Just where can one turn for advice when starting a new postdoctoral office? One natural place to look is other postdoc offices. Sharing of best practices is one of the goals of the Postdoc Network but, as comments made at the second annual Postdoc Network National Meeting made clear, publishing an online database of links to extant offices and articles highlighting successful offices is not enough. Ask postdoc office administrators what they need and most likely the answer (after "money") will be guidelines and best practices: Who is doing what, and how can we implement that program at our institution?

The Focus on Administrators session at the 2002 Postdoc Network National Meeting provided a forum in which to discuss the challenges of establishing and maintaining postdoc offices. The session featured Sadis Matalon, associate dean of the Office of Postdoctoral Education at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB); Jonathan Wiest, associate director for Training and Education at the National Cancer Institute's (NCI?s) Center for Cancer Research (CCR); and Mary Anne With, director of Institutional Oversight for the Postdoctoral Program at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). All panelists gave brief histories of their postdoc offices and described the impetuses for creating the offices. They also described the needs of postdocs at their institutions and the programs they offer to address those needs.

Network Nugget

This is one of a series of articles on the 2002 Postdoc Network National Meeting. Please see the meeting program for more details on the meeting, as well as links to other articles describing the sessions. The UAB Office of Postdoctoral Education was formed in 1999 following a series of focus groups with faculty and postdocs, organized by the graduate school. Similar to events at the University of Pennsylvania, it was the result of concerted administrative action to address recruitment and retention of postdocs. Initial efforts at UAB focused on policies for postdoc classification and health insurance. The postdoc office has also instituted a career enhancement program that supports postdoc travel to scientific meetings. "This is particularly important, as many advisors do not have the funds to sponsor travel to more than one meeting per year, especially meetings in Europe," explained Matalon.

Another program that merits attention is UAB's approach to attract and retain outstanding postdocs. UAB has established a partnership with the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation and the Southern Research Institute, allowing UAB to recruit nearly 20 new outstanding postdocs over the next 4 years. Public-private relationships like this may be one way to increase postdoc compensation--and not just for new postdocs. Relieved fiscal pressure on principal investigators (PIs) may free up funds to provide for others in the lab. Matalon is looking into ways to measure the "success" of these programs and is in the planning stages of establishing a longitudinal survey of UAB postdocs. "We hire a full-time person in the summer to track postdocs who have left, but this is such a difficult task we may ask for a year-round position."

Like UAB, the Office of Training and Education (OTE) at the CCR had its roots in an administrative action. In 1995, then-director Richard Klausner formed an Intramural Advisory Board and charged it with identifying what was lacking in the postdoctoral experience at NCI. Out of this came the NCI Fellowship Office, which in addition to administrative support provides recruiting outreach and information services, research resources, career counseling, and grant advice for all 1000 NCI postdocs.

The OTE was formed in early 2001 to provide professional programming for the 800 postdocs and research fellows in the CCR. In his mission statement, J. Carl Barrett, CCR scientific director, asserts that the CCR is "committed to supporting and training young scientists and clinicians as they launch their careers." With this in mind, last fall Barrett hired Jonathan Wiest away from an academic faculty position to run the OTE.

With postdocs spread over three campuses in Maryland, one of the largest challenges Wiest faces is communicating with the fellows. The OTE is working on consolidating two listservs and establishing a database to track entering fellows. "It is difficult because postdocs are leaving and coming every day," said Wiest. When he arrived at the CCR, he looked to established offices for ideas. "I took things where I could. I used the PDN database to locate other offices and check on their programs, I looked at other NIH intramural programs, and drew from my own experiences as a postdoc at NIEHS [National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] and as a faculty member at an academic institution. "

The CCR saw the connection between the quality of the postdoctoral experience and the recruitment of new fellows. Thus it became its goal to provide a quality of experience that is "second to none--not only with respect to access to the most recent technologies but also for career development," said Wiest. At the outset, he recognized a need to develop grant-writing skills. "At a university, the focus is on how to get the next grant. At a government lab like the NIH, research is reviewed retrospectively. The focus is on publications, not grant-writing." Without this experience, postdocs who trained in government labs are often at a disadvantage when faced with writing their first grant.

To remedy this, Wiest started a pilot grant-writing project: a 3-month-long weekly seminar series with the end goal of producing for submission a K22 Career Development Award, a grant to facilitate the transition of fellows into independent faculty positions. "I started off with 30 interested fellows. Some thought it should take only 2 weeks to write a grant and weren?t interested in the program. About 12 to 15 fellows regularly attend the seminars." One of the highlights of the series has been one-on-one interaction with a science writer, who has been working directly with the fellows to edit and revise their proposal documents. Wiest believes "you learn best by doing. It works even better if you have someone with experience who can critique in a positive way and subsequently help with revisions."

The CCR Office of Training and Education budget comes from the Office of the Director. Because Barrett is so supportive of postdoc training programs, Wiest says, "If there is something I?d like to do, I have never heard the word ?no?."

At LANL, a postdoc office was established in the 1980s with a focus on recruitment, training, and retention. The postdoc program was growing and the administration realized the need for a distinct process for hiring postdocs. At LANL, all postdoc candidates must have an identified technical staff member or PI to work with to be sponsored for a position, and all sponsored candidates must prepare a package which includes a resume, transcripts, letters of reference, a research proposal written by the candidate, and a nominating memo written by the PI. All sponsored candidates are reviewed and approved by the Postdoctoral Committee, composed of LANL technical staff appointed by the Science and Technology Based Programs Directorate.

"The quality of our program is what it is because we have this review process," says program specialist Mary Anne With. Postdocs and their mentors are made aware of the various program policies and procedures prior to and when the postdoc joins LANL. With explained that the office is funded by charging the organizations that employ postdocs approximately 1.33% of the postdoc?s salary. The postdoc office sponsors two types of publication prizes, distinguished performace awards, social events, a postdoc colloquia lunch series, and informal outplacement services. Among the initiatives being developed is a new hire checklist. The office is working to provide more guidance regarding services available to allow postdocs a smoother transition into the culture at LANL.

In all three cases, UAB, the CCR, and LANL, it was an administration that, faced with recruitment and retention issues, took the initiative to establish programs for postdocs. All have either instituted or are working toward a centralized, formalized process for hiring, effective tracking of postdocs while at the institution, and some form of exit interview or database of postdocs who have moved on to other positions.

While these offices were established by administrative mandate, postdocs play a vital role beyond being the fuel behind the research effort. Last year, the UAB postdoc office established a Council for Postdoctoral Education--which includes department chairs, six or seven faculty members, seven or eight postdocs, and the associate dean of biomedical research. UAB is also looking into establishing town meetings to get feedback on the effectiveness of office programs. Meanwhile, With queries postdocs and mentors about new initiatives using a listserv she developed; and Wiest turns to the CCR Fellows and Young Investigators for programmatic feedback and help planning the annual postdoc science retreat.

Postdocs and administrators working together, backed up by a strong mandate from the institution leadership: that is a recipe for success in the effort to improve the postdoctoral experience.

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